U-CF School Board discusses details of proposed final budget
By J. Chambless
The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board and administration drilled down into the details of a proposed budget for 2015-16 on Monday night and arrived at three scenarios they will be discussing over the next month.
The proposed final general fund budget was presented by Robert Cochran, the district's director of business and operations, in a presentation that only hit the highlights, but still took two and a half hours of careful examination.
District superintendent John Sanville said, “This budget you have before you is a living document. This process began in the fall. This version is different than what you had in front of you in February. There are a lot of moving parts to a $79 million budget. Now is the time for you to ask questions and get answers.”
Sanville outlined the challenges faced by the district, including mandatory contributions to the PSERS teacher retirement fund that will be 25.84 percent in the coming year. “That means that for every $100 we pay to a staff member, we send an additional $25.84 to the state for PSERS contributions,” Sanville explained. The cost to the district for funding special education has also risen from about $2 million in 1996 to $12 million in the current year. State and federal support for special education has remained essentially stagnant over that time period.
While tax revenue collections are returning to near-normal levels after the economic downturn, the district is still budgeting conservatively, Sanville said. He singled out the district's realignment or elimination of certain positions, a reduction in hourly overtime, and increased funding from rentals, participation fees and parking fees. He also pointed out that teachers, support staff and administration have all had two years of wage freezes spread out over recent years.
“This budget makes investments to stay current in the education of our students and to make sure that our kids are prepared for success in life after Unionville-Chadds Ford,” Sanville said. “We have three scenarios that will allow us to deliver top-flight education for our students.”
In his presentation, Cochran pointed out that real estate taxes provide just over 79 percent of the school district's revenue. Most of that is residential, with about 10 percent coming from commercial and industrial properties. Additional funding comes from transfer taxes (paid when selling a parcel of land or home), and interim taxes (paid for new construction or additions and renovations).
The current millage rate is 26.44 in Chester County, and 22.20 in Delaware County. The district is proposing a millage rate of 27.14 for Chester County and 23.02 for Delaware County, for a weighted average increase of 2.85 percent. The impact on the average homeowner in Chester County would be an additional $184.81 per year, Cochran said. The current average tax bill in the county is just under $7,000 per year.
The district's proposed budget would use $560,986 in Act 1 exceptions and only $492 from the PSERS fund balance to get the millage rate of 27.14 in Chester County (a 2.65 percent increase) and 23.02 percent in Delaware County (a 3.69 percent increase).
“This is a philosophical discussion for the board,” Sanville said. “From an educational standpoint, the educational component for our students is the same in all three scenarios.”
In a second scenario laid out for the board, the district could use $209,620 from the PSERS assigned fund balance, as well as $350,874 in exception dollars, to reduce the weighted average millage impact to 2.5 percent. A third option would use $576,770 from the PSERS assigned fund balance and $81,550 in exception dollars to get to a weighted average increase of 1.9 percent, which is the Act 1 Index.
If no exception dollars are used, the district could use $1,019,447 from the PSERS assigned fund balance to get to a weighted average increase of 1.21 percent. In that case, “we would have to cut programs,” Sanville said.
The board members informally discussed which option they favored, with no clear agreement as the meeting concluded.
Board member Keith Knauss said he was in favor of using $576,000 from the fund balance to keep the tax increase at 1.9 percent. Board member Michael Rock, however, said that the budget “is about as lean as we can get. Education is a public good. We all benefit when this is done right. To be competitive, salaries have to go up,” he said. “We need to condition taxpayers that steady increases in taxes are necessary to keep good people and provide education in the district. I'm not in favor of drawing down the fund balance. Actually, 2.85 percent looks good to me. Below that, it looks like we're shorting ourselves.”
Board members did agree that they would like a list of which new programs are part of the 2015-16 budget, so that they can point to specific improvements being paid for with taxpayer dollars. Board member Robert Sage said, “What we're trying to say is, are there line items in the budget for new things that we could eliminate?”
“It would be good to let the public know what's new,” said board president Victor Dupuis. “We need to identify the new things – not to say we're necessarily going to cut any of them. We need to say, 'This tax increase pays for these new things.'”
Sanville said the administration will draw up a list of items that are new to the 2015-16 budget and present it to the board for further discussion. The board agreed they would be ready to indicate their votes by the end of the May 11 board work session.
While the meeting was publicized as a public hearing, only three members of the public attended. Two of them left before the conclusion of the meeting. Only Beverly Brooks, from Penn Township, remained for public comment. “I've been to a whole lot of school board meetings,” she said. “And I've seen some bad decisions made that cost taxpayers a lot of money. I want you to be careful about how you will impact not only next year, but future years.”
Additional public budget hearings were cancelled. The board will meet for a public work session on May 11 at 7 p.m. in the District Office public meeting room. At that time, the board wll approve a proposed final budget. A copy will be posted online on May 26 for public inspection. The board is expected to approve the final budget on June 15 at their regular meeting in the District Office.
The complete proposed final budget is posted on the district's website, at www.ucfsd.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.